the elements of music

Recently, listening to some music by a beginning composer, got me thinking about all of the elements of music – and the importance for any aspiring composer to gain mastery of all of those elements and incorporate them into their work. The basic building blocks, so to speak, of music include pitch, rhythm, melody, harmony, tonality, texture, dynamics, timbre and form. Ignoring for the moment that different people may have slightly different lists, my purpose here is simply to convey the idea that music is a language made up of different elements – and the employment of those in combination is the art of composition.

Although it is no doubt a matter of taste, music compositions that are missing any of these basic building blocks leave me cold. As examples, while I intellectually understand what led to the attempt by so many to write music that avoids tonality, the push and pull of notes around tonal centers, whether long term or fleeting, for me is one of the critical elements that allows music to effect listeners emotionally. It is certainly not the only element that does so, but it is of such great importance, that it is not surprising to me that so called “atonal” music never captured a wider audience. Similarly, music that consists primarily of shifting harmonies but without melody, feel to me like empty music – and when I hear it, in my own imagination, I always find myself filling in the missing elements. That is the case for me with the majority of so called “minimalist” music. I can’t listen for more than a minute before I find myself desperately waiting for a melody to give it shape and direction. While it is apparent that music intended for quiet meditation has greatly influenced many composers over the past several decades, and listening to such compositions serves that purpose well, I rarely have the least desire to listen to it as music for music’s sake. The greatest pleasure for me, when listening to a new composition, is intently following the trail of the composer’s musical thought, mentally walking down a road with twists and turns, seeing interesting sights along the way as the music reveals its story and ultimate destination.

That sense of “going somewhere” in music is the essence of form – and by form, I do not mean to infer the use of the word as a description of classical forms – but any form that the composer creates to allow the music to tell its story. The greatest challenge, at least for me when composing, is making decisions about when to state something, when to counter that statement, whether to transition to something else – or to do so abruptly, when to repeat, when to contrast, and when to end. And, to do any of those things requires the manipulation of everything else – melody, counterpoint, textures, timbres, harmony, rhythm, and so on. Without the interplay of all of that, to create a musical “being” that seems to have its own personality and life, filled with thoughts, may have on the surface the apparent nature of music – but lacks the essence of what it is in music that makes it so effectively speak to our hearts.